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Why Christchurch?

New Zealand, for pity’s sake!

Nothing bad ever seems to happen in New Zealand – unless the mighty All Blacks rugby team has a run of poor form, when there is hell to pay.

Except, that is, in Christchurch, a small city on the picturesque coast of that country’s sleepy South Island – fictional home to cinematic Hobbits – the residents of which must be wondering what they could possibly have done to deserve their recent disasters: first a devastating earthquake, and second, a massacre of innocents at a mosque on a Friday afternoon in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. The first catastrophe was a cruel act of Nature – one that might have happened to any city located on one of the planet’s fault lines – but the second was even more random, the perpetrator a deranged loner, originally from Australia – although he might have been from anywhere – apparently drawn to the white supremacist movement, which has always been with us but which now attracts its converts from the Internet.

None of which, of course, explains anything. There is no explaining madness.
Year by year we, the unremarkable citizens of the world, living rather humdrum lives in supposedly safe places, feel no less remarkable but considerably less safe. It is a corrosive phenomenon, this feeling that the world becomes an ever more dangerous place, and for reasons that seem to defy any rational explanation. Even my own suburban village, 20 miles from those neglected London districts where residents now live daily in fear of being mugged or murdered, was the scene last month of a knife attack on a suburban train. Of course, we have all carried on regardless, pretending everything has returned to normal.

But not, nowadays, when performing the simple act of boarding a train, which once required no more thought than tying a shoelace or blowing one’s nose, but which now requires conscious precautionary choices that we never had to confront, like picking a well-populated carriage, or making for the one in which the guard resides. “You can’t be too careful anywhere these days,” a traveler muttered to me last week, after casting a fearful look at his fellow-passenger (reassuringly overlooking the possibility that I might be a knife-wielding psychopath).
While mourning for the Muslims of Christchurch, spare yet another thought for the Jews as prospective victims.

Supposedly, we learned the lessons of anti-Semitism from the horrors of the Holocaust, yet my Jewish wife, who has never in her life paused to consider whether either her religion or her race might put her in any kind of jeopardy, now feels unnerved. Not afraid, just unsettled, as if some dimly remembered nightmare had recurred. The media has been bringing us daily reminders that some people in the world hate Jews – and for all the shamefully misbegotten reasons that some people always did. The British Labour Party, we are told – and I for one believe it – is riddled with anti-Semites, although the prejudice is wrapped in the cloak of an animus towards the policies of Israel. Now the Democratic Party in the United States also finds itself confronting the same issue. The congregation of my wife’s local synagogue in leafy, affluent Weybridge is on heightened alert these days, the premises patrolled daily to guard against desecration or attack.
Even as I was writing that last sentence, word came that a gunman had opened fire on a tram in Utrecht, a town in the Netherlands. What did Utrecht, a town renowned for its medieval houses overlooking dreamy canals, ever do to warrant such treatment? The answer, of course, is nothing. Just as Utrecht did nothing to provoke the German army to march through its cobbled streets at the start of the Second World War. If there is a pattern to acts of madness it is that they, by definition, defy reason.

Some social critics insist on blaming the pervasive influence of social media, which they say incubates and facilitates bad behavior by society’s losers and loonies. They may well be right, although nothing much in the way of evidence is offered for the thesis; or at least nothing that impresses me as sufficiently persuasive to rally to their cause (and I am no admirer of social media in any of its forms). I am not even prepared, in the context of history, to concede that outrages perpetrated in the name of racism or nationalism or any other insane cause, are more prevalent than they ever have been.

The probable causes of the Christchurch shooting will be debated ad nauseum. Instant diagnoses will be put forward by all and sundry. None will suffice. Adolf Hitler did not have access to the Internet.

I have nothing to offer by way of explanation – no more for poor Christchurch than for the human condition in all its horrible complexities. All I know is that there among us are those who, individually and collectively, in the name of religion, nationalism, racial superiority or any other damned wicked cause you can think of, will continue to commit mindless atrocities as they always have throughout history.

Even in such apparently peaceable places like Christchurch and Utrecht. Perhaps especially in peaceable places like Christchurch and Utrecht.

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